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Is Lebanon’s Disassociation Policy Coming to an End?

Wednesday, April 3, 2013 18:33
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Lebanon, a beautiful but tense country—with two civil wars behind it, has many people on edge these days. A myriad of shifting divisions and alliances, 24 years after the Taif Accord keeps the specter of violence alive. Carl von Clausewitz called war the extension of politics by other means, a truism for Lebanese who have faced differing levels of internal violence with political issues at the core of each outburst. This has largely depended on the severity of the deadlock within the Lebanese parliament and the willingness of political parties to enlist their armed wings for a shift in the balance of power.

The Lebanese are again faced with the possibility of the total breakdown of the country’s political system and devolution into violence. On March 22, Prime Minister Najib Mikati gave his resignation to Michel Suleiman, Lebanon’s president. Without devolving into a long winded explanation of the Lebanese political system, it suffices to say that under constitutional law the prime minister must always hail from the Sunni confession. Lebanon’s political system is one in which voters are rallied around religious identity and not political platforms. Intricacies aside, the country is now politically divided. Sunnis and Shiites find themselves on opposite ends of the political spectrum, while Christians are divided along the pro-Western March 14 coalition and the pro-Syrian March 8 coalition lines. This makes the replacement of Mikati and his now defunct cabinet a foresee-ably long and tenuous process; a Sunni will simply not step up and take the job, and in turn legitimize Hezbollah’s reign.

Although Mikati will remain in his position in the interim as a caretaker at President Suleiman’s request, the loss of this pivotal figure may spell disaster for Lebanon’s stability. Under Mikati the Lebanese government followed a policy of dissociation. As outlined in the Baabda Declaration, an agreement between the rival March 8 and March 14 factions, Lebanese political parties agreed to, “…keep Lebanon away from the policy of regional and international conflicts (to) spare it the negative repercussions of regional tensions and crises.” Mikati embodied this agreement, meant to act as a bulwark against violent spillover from Syria, and spent his brief tenure as a devoted upholder of the Baabda Declaration.  A native of Lebanon’s second biggest, and primarily Sunni city of Tripoli, Mikati was tasked by the Hezbollah-dominated March 8 to create a government in early 2011. As the Shiite movement required a Sunni prime minister in the aftermath of the dissolution of a March 14-composed government, it was thought that Mikati would serve merely as a puppet of Hezbollah. While the Prime Minister sought not to antagonize the Shiite movement, his resignation last week was rightly viewed as a major slight by Hezbollah.

In order to understand the slight and the political and most likely personal reasoning behind it, a look at the current political situation is in order. The most repetitive casual factors for Lebanon’s instability have emanated from the encumbered nature of the country’s political system. Deadlocks are common, as the political system is based upon a consensus model, and defining even the most taken-for-granted aspects of a democratic system have caused governments to collapse, political assassinations and in the 1970s; an all-out civil war. This year’s issue has revolved around parliamentary elections, or more precisely, the electoral laws that will govern this process. Mikati and Suleiman, in addition to the March 14 coalition believe that the same law used to govern elections in 2009 should be utilized again for the voting process this year in order to have them held in June. Under what is known as the “1960’s law”, after its replication of the law used for Lebanon’s 1960 parliamentary election, the electoral victors are chosen based on majority vote and the rule of large constituencies.

Hezbollah and its allies, particularly the former, have pushed for a law that would enshrine a proportional voting system. In a country that has not seen a census performed since 1932 it is widely believed that Shiites are the largest confessional group, given their large birth-rate and economic advancement.  Hezbollah would like to see June elections decided under this framework, its opponents view a proportional system akin to a hostile takeover by a group tied to Iran and Syria; one which self-identifies as the “Party of God”.

Britain and France, through their diplomatic representatives, have called on both Lebanese coalitions to put aside their differences and to go forward with June elections, particularly at a time many believe Lebanon may be pulled into the Syrian crisis. Political deadlock alone has caused violence in the streets in Lebanon, coupling this deadlock with the demise of Hezbollah’s patron in Damascus may provide for an obstreperous devolution of the security situation. Mikati saw eye-to-eye with the European powers and the reluctance of March 8 politicians to accept the appointment of members to the Supervisory Commission for Election Campaigns was one of two issues that pushed him to resign. As this was the last step in the process towards creating a framework for June elections, the frustration is understandable.

The second sticking point which caused Mikati to reevaluate his position as the formal head of the Hezbollah dominated government dealt with Lebanon’s internal security. Unlike the generally accepted notion in Western democracies of the separation of powers and promotion by merit, Lebanon’s institutions are rife with politicized appointments and sectarian power plays. While seemingly erratic and primordial to onlookers, the balance of appointments, particularly in regards to Lebanon’s various security services, in many cases create a tenuous stability, but stability nonetheless. This balance-of-power, to borrow the term from international relations, was shattered with the assassination of Wissam Al-Hassan. The Brigadier General and head of the Information Branch of the Internal Security Forces (ISF), Al-Hassan was killed by a car bomb on October 9. An attack reminiscent of that which killed Al-Hassan’s boss, Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, left the ISF in a precarious situation and the Sunni-led March 14 scrambling to keep control over the institution.

Beaten and relegated to opposition status within Lebanon’s governing structure, the March 14 coalition has sought to maintain control over the ISF in order to protect its members from arbitrary arrest and provide a platform from which to pester Hezbollah and its allies.  March 14’s other man in the ISF, Major General Ashraf Rifi, head of the institution, was denied an extension on his term of office. Mikati and March 14 had both petitioned to have Rifi’s tenure extended, past the retirement age of 59 which he turned this year. The extension of his tenure was particularly important for the pro-Western coalition given the fact that Rifi’s heir apparent had been Wissam al-Hassan. The efforts of 69 Members of Parliament and their lobbying of speaker of the house Nabih Berri, leader of the Amal Movement, part of March 8, was futile. Hezbollah and its allies viewed Rifi as being too close to the March 14 coalition and held no qualms over sticking to the ISF’s retirement policy.

Although it is generally accepted that the head of the ISF be a representative of the Sunni confession, Rifi’s replacement is Brigadier General Roger Salem, his former deputy and a Greek Orthodox. Salem is also approaching retirement and will be relieved of his post in three months, essentially being little more than a caretaker appointment, mirroring Mikati’s current position. Salem’s apparent replacement, in this game of musical chairs, will be a March 14 ally, Brigadier General Ibrahim Basbous, a Sunni. However, if Hezbollah has its way, Basbous will be overlooked for General Ali al-Hajj, a Shiite who had previously held the post when Syria still occupied the country.  If this appointment would proceed, al-Hajj’s tenure over the institution would allow Hezbollah to dismantle March 14’s control over the ISF, robbing the coalition of the institution’s protection. March 14 and its supporters will, in all likelihood, protest any change to this succession process, creating an opening for the possibility of extra-political means of settling disputes.

An ominous sign of what may to come is the appearance of hundreds of posters across Tripoli thanking Major General Ashraf Rifi for his protection of Lebanon’s Sunni community. In a country where politicians and bureaucrats are celebrated in a manner akin to sports heroes and movie stars, and where they are seen as protectors of their confession, any strife over political appointments carries the possibility of open violence. Add to the mix the inability of the country’s politicians to agree on the rules governing the next parliamentary election, including an election date, and Lebanon seems to have reverted into a sectarian tinderbox.

With the position of Prime Minister now vacant, the political process stalled and Hezbollah making overt power plays, the proverbial levies which have largely kept out the Syrian crisis have started to falter. Hezbollah’s Faustian calculations, in an effort to maintain its domestic power while losing one of its external patrons, may well allow Syria’s confessional strife to bleed across the border.



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